Sunday, October 15, 2006

On the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions

"Islam shook me deeply. Seeing such faith, seeing people living in the continual presence of God, I came to glimpse something worthy and more real than worldly occupations."
--Blessed Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) [1]

"For us the Jews are Scripture’s living words, because they remind us of what Our Lord suffered. They are not to be persecuted, killed, or even put to flight."
--St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) [2]

How prophetic are these words from Charles de Foucauld and Bernard of Clairvaux! In their respective centuries, there was much hostility towards non-Christians. It was rare to see, even (or perhaps particularly) in the documents of the Church, an ecumenical word or an amicable spirit in their regard. Yet from these periods of hostility emerge two quotations with quite a cordial feeling, a sentiment that would finally find conciliar expression in a most unprecedented document from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965): Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. Lest we take such a document for granted, it is essential to understand the context of it, both among the previous documents of the Church, and in the mind and intention of the Council Fathers. In this light, we can come to better appreciate what would otherwise be just one of many expressions of our Faith.

Early Magisterial Documents[3]

For the sake of brevity, we can afford here only a quick survey of the great opus of all that has been written in the name of the Church and Her Vicar. I suspect that even an exhaustive treatment of these writings would uncover very little, at least in the way of papal encyclicals, regarding the Church’s relationship with non-Christians. I provide here the more notable entries.

There are no references to previous Church documents in Nostra Aetate. The only reference to any document is a secondary reference in Article 4 to Lumen Gentium [4] and a most obscure reference in Article 3 to a letter from Pope Gregory VII to Anzir, king of Mauritania (1076 AD). In this letter, the pope writes: "We and you must show in a special way to the other nations an example of this charity, for we believe and confess one God, although in different ways, and praise and worship him daily as the creator of all ages and the ruler of this world."[5] This appears to be a rare moment of fraternal regard on behalf of Gregory. He lives in a time in which the Crusades against the Muslims were just underway and Christian sentiment was certainly hostile. Two years earlier, he called all Christians to lay down their lives in defense of those being plundered and persecuted by this "pagan race."[6]

Most of the antagonistic language regarding the Muslims falls within a similar context of invasion by the Muslim people. So, from the First Lateran Council (1123) we see that the remission of sins and the protection of goods is afforded those who "set out for Jerusalem and offer effective help towards the defense of the Christian people and overcoming the tyranny of the infidels."[7] The Third Lateran Council (1179 AD) prescribes excommunication for Christians who aid in any way the war efforts of the "Saracens" (Muslim opponents of the Crusades), becoming consequently "their superiors in wickedness."[8] Saracens are also not allowed to have Christian servants in their houses.[9] The Fourth Lateran Council (1215 AD) speaks of liberation of the Holy Land "from infidel hands" and "enemies of the faith"[10], and renews the prohibition against aiding the Saracens.[11] The First Council of Lyons (1245 AD) reasserts all this, almost verbatim.[12]

Regarding the Jews, mention of them is more ancient and numerous, but no less antagonistic. The Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) declares that readers and cantors are not to allow their children to marry heretics, Jews, or Greeks, unless the person intending to marry the orthodox party promises to convert to the true faith.[13] The Second Council of Nicaea (787) decrees that Jews who pretend to become Christian, and who thus "make a mockery of Christ who is God," shall not be received into communion with Christians, nor should they presume to baptize their children or possess a slave.[14] Both the Third (680-681) and Fourth (869 AD) Councils of Constantinople, in affirming the anathema of Nestorius, interestingly point out that he "thought as the Jews" and "possessed a Jewish mentality,"[15] a possible reference to his denial of the Lord’s divinity. The Third Lateran Council (1179 AD) forbids Jews to have Christian servants in their houses or to hold any position of authority over Christians.[16] The Fourth Lateran Council (1215 AD) reproaches "the perfidy of the Jews," who "extort oppressive and excessive interest" from Christians. It also asserts that they must wear distinguishing dress in public, for the joining of Christians with Jews and Saracens constitutes "a damnable mixing." Jews are not to hold public office, for "it would be too absurd for a blasphemer of Christ to exercise power over Christians," nor can Jews retain anything from their own rite once they convert to Catholicism.[17] Finally, the Council of Basle (1433) "firmly believes, professes and preaches that all those who are outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless they are joined to the Catholic Church before the end of their lives."[18]

Two papal documents are worth mentioning as well. First, is Pope Gregory X’s Papal Protection of the Jews, which in 1272, is another one of those prophetic treatments of Jewish-Christian relations. In it, Gregory forbids Christians to baptize Jews by force, injure their persons, steal their money or their goods, disturb them during celebration of their religious festivals, falsely accuse them of kidnapping and murder, or devastate Jewish cemeteries.

In contrast, the other papal document, Benedict XIV’s A Quo Primum (On Jews and Christians Living in the Same Place), written in 1751, shows an obvious resentment towards the Jews, specifically those in Poland. According to the document, the Jews have gained much of the positions of authority in business and commerce, and they use this to persecute Christians. Benedict refers to them as "cruel taskmasters" who give "tyrannical orders" (no. 2). He bemoans the mingling of Christians with Jews, and the excessive interest that Jews require from Christians (no. 3). To his credit, Benedict does recall the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter of Cluny, who asserted that the Jews should not be harmed or destroyed (nos. 4 and 5). However, he also recalled the prescriptions of his predecessors regarding service under Jews, the promotion of Jews to public office, and the engagement in any business relationships with them. Noteworthy in its contrast to Nostra Aetate is Benedict’s reference to Innocent III, who said: "Let not the sons of the free woman be servants of the sons of the handmaid; but as servants rejected by their lord for whose death they evilly conspired, let them realize that the result of this deed is to make them servants of those whom Christ's death made free" (no. 5). Finally, Benedict ends with a most lurid image, referring to the effect of the Jewish presence on the Catholics of Poland as a "stain of shame," one that he will work "energetically and effectively" to remove (no. 9).

Although most of the documents on the Church’s relationship with non-Christian religions concern the Jews and the Muslims, there is, oddly enough, a papal document that addresses Church relations with Hindus. In 1893, Pope Leo XIII wrote Ad Extremas (On Seminaries for Native Clergy). In it, his primary concern is the establishing of seminaries in "the regions of the Indies" (no. 1) so that clergy can be formed to evangelize the Hindus and govern the Christian people in these lands. As a result, we also see what his perception is of this non-Christian religion. For instance, he refers to the "myths and vile superstitions of the Brahmans," from which many Hindus are being converted (no. 1). He laments that many of them "are still deprived of the truth, miserably imprisoned in the darkness of superstition!" (no. 1). According to Leo, the eternal salvation of these Hindus is at stake (no. 10).

All of this may be quite alarming to the modern reader. It appears that the Church is saying that, if we cannot convert these non-Christians, we should separate ourselves from them. Except for the lone letter of Gregory VII to the Muslim king of Mauritania, there is no acknowledgement of truth found in these religions. The Jews in particular are an accursed people who suffer because of their rejection of Christ and who risk damnation if they are not converted to the true faith. Of course, many Catholic apologists and patristic scholars attempt to ease our alarm by emphasizing the unique times in which these statements were made. However, the hostility is there, and it cannot be ignored.

Nostra Aetate and the Second Vatican Council

With this history as a backdrop, we come to the document that was the impetus for this look into the past. On October 28th, 1965, Pope Paul VI promulgated Nostra Aetate, the Church’s Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. Arthur Gilbert rightly calls it "an historic declaration" with a "revolutionary assertion."[19] The assertion is this:
"The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men."[20]
Furthermore, there is expressed a high regard for the Muslims, who venerate Jesus and Mary (no. 3). Likewise, Catholics are fellow sons of Abraham with the Jews, who are not an accursed people (no. 4), and Hinduism and Buddhism are honest attempts at understanding the divine mystery and responding to the inadequacy of this changing world (no. 2). All of this, as we have seen, is quite unprecedented. In this document, the Church has not simply said that we should avoid disparaging or harming non-Christians (nos. 4 and 5), which is the most we could say of the documents of the past. Instead, the Church has additionally affirmed that there is truth and goodness in these non-Christian religions.

Once struck by the gracious hand that the Church has extended towards other religions with the promulgation of Nostra Aetate, one can easily come to wonder, "How did such a document come to be? What peoples and events guided the Council towards the finished product we have before us?" It is in answering these final questions that we complete our assessment of this Declaration.

"Few Council documents aroused as much controversy, or were followed with such close interest, as the famous Declaration on the Jews …"[21] This is certainly no surprise. Within the Church, traditional understandings of the validity of the Jewish religion and our relationship with its adherents were being pitted against new implications of the dignity of the human person and of religious liberty, and new ways of understanding the Passion of our Lord. Outside the Church, Jews wished to finally eradicate the charge of "deicide" and any last remnants of Christian Anti-Semitism. For their part, Arabs wished to defend their claim on the Holy Land, and to resist any support of Zionism or the State of Israel. All of these interests converged upon this document, making it a highly contested work that took the whole length of the Council to complete.

The journey actually started before the Council even began. By early 1960, a flurry of Anti-Semitism had erupted throughout Europe and the United States. As a result, Pope John XXIII received two guests that would be quite influential to him: the first, a B’nai B’rith delegation (the oldest Jewish fraternal organization in the United States) on January 18th; the second, the noted Jewish historian Jules Isaac, in July of the same year. These two visits seem to have been the catalyst that compelled the pope to consider a declaration dealing with the Jewish people.[22]

Cardinal Bea, the President of the newly formed Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity, was eventually given the responsibility of preparing this declaration. After consultation from many American and international Jewish organizations, the Secretariat approved the first draft of its statement on the Jews. However, Pope John decided not to place it on the agenda for the First Session of the Council. There was already some controversy surrounding the document, most notably from among the Arabs who were suspicious of Jewish involvement with the document and in the Council. He probably felt that the climate was not right for bringing it to the forefront of the Council.[23]

After the closing of the First Session, rumors mounted that the Council Fathers would rather avoid the Jewish question. But, behind the scenes, the Secretariat was preparing a new statement, one that would be attached to a Schema on Ecumenism. Unfortunately, when the Second Session began on September 29, 1963, it quickly became apparent that the Fathers had a long road ahead of them. The debates were contentious, and much of their work found itself tied up in the politics of the Council. The printing of Chapter 4 of the Schema on Ecumenism, which was about the Jews, was "mysteriously delayed."[24]

Finally, on November 8th, the official text of the statement was distributed to the Council Fathers. Upon distribution, Cardinal Bea gave a speech that was well-received by all the Council Fathers. In his speech, he made the following points:
  • The Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity took the initiative to address the Church’s relations with the Jews at the express command of Pope John XIII.

  • The statement is concerned with no national or political question. There is no question of acknowledging Zionism or the State of Israel. There is only treatment of a purely religious question.

  • We see in the Old Testament the preparation of the work of the Redeemer and his Church.

  • The Church is the continuation of the chosen people of Israel.

  • God has not rejected his chosen people.

  • We must imitate the gentle charity of Christ the Lord and his apostles with which they excused their persecutors.

  • Popular anti-Semitic literature has influenced Catholics over the years, especially when it used arguments from Scripture.

  • The Jews of our times can hardly be accused of the crimes committed against Christ, so far removed are they from those deeds.

  • Even in the time of Christ, the majority of the chosen people did not cooperate with the leaders of the people in condemning Christ.

  • The Church must follow the example of Christ, who says, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing."[25]
Although the Fathers largely agreed with the content of the statement, there were a few objections. Some of the Fathers felt that it was out of place as a chapter in the Schema on Ecumenism. Most of them understood "ecumenism" to pertain only to inter-religious dialogue among Christians, not between Christians and non-Christian religions. Also, some of the Fathers felt that if they were going to address the Jews, then they should also address the other non-Christian religions, such as Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Of course, there was also a small group of Fathers who either flatly disagreed with what they viewed as conciliations in the text, or who did not feel that the issue of the Jews should be addressed at all.[26] Ultimately, the Second Session closed without a finished text upon which to vote.

During the interim period between the closing of the Second Session on December 3rd, 1963, and the opening of the Third Session on September 14, 1964, the statement on the Jews underwent many revisions. When the statement was eventually distributed to the Council Fathers during the Third Session, they had before them a document that was very different from the one that they had previously seen. Added to it was a treatment on the Muslims and on the Eastern religions. Also, the statement was no longer attached to the Schema on Ecumenism. However, the treatment on the Jews was noticeably weakened. In particular, the word "deicide" was removed as describing the crime from which the Council hoped to vindicate the Jews, and a call for the conversion of the Jews was added. Many of the bishops, particularly the American ones, argued strongly for the restoration of the word "deicide" and the elimination of any call for Jewish conversion. Eventually these suggestions were heeded, but when the Third Session closed they had a statement that garnered only 1,651 Yes votes, 242 Yes with reservations, and 99 No.[27]

During the break, the document was changed yet again. This time, the Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity decided to remove the word "deicide" and put in its place a series of conditional phrases and qualifications. In September, just before the opening of the last Session, the Secretariat publicly revealed that it had changed the statement "in order to clear up any eventual misgivings."[28]

Of course, when the Fathers saw the changes that were made, many of them were furious. Bishop Leven of San Antonio, Texas mounted a campaign to reject the revised version. The more "conservative" Fathers also played their part, distributing a letter (in violation of the Council’s rules) calling upon the Council to reject the Jewish statement. Even from outside the Council, there was hostility. A four-page tract signed by Catholic organizations throughout the world charged that only an "anti-Pope or a secret conspiracy could approve" the Declaration.[29]

However, Pope Paul VI had already announced at the close of the Third Session that the next session would be the last. So, feeling like this was the best that they could achieve considering the controversial nature of the subject, the Fathers gave their final vote: 2,221 Yes; 88 No, 3 Null. Even at the very end, some of the bishops resisted, and the 88 No votes would be the largest number of dissenting votes for any document of the Council.[30]


It is amazing when looking back on this process to see the amount of work-—and even a great deal of frustration-—that went into the creation of the Declaration. There was very much a human element involved. Opinions flared. Many different groups fought to protect their own special interests. Rynne even posits that a very concerted effort was made to circumvent the promulgation of the document altogether![31]

Fortunately, what we see both in the deliberations of the Council and throughout the conciliar history of the Church is a very real spiritual element as well. Nothing else can explain the production of such wise, influential, and occasionally even poetic documents out of such an environment of contention. Nothing else can explain the gradual revelation of the dignity of man and the implications that this dignity has upon our perception of other Christians and of non-Christian peoples-—despite the prejudices and misunderstandings that were often harbored. Better still, nothing else can ensure the spreading of the Truth and the protection from error that has consistently and without fail characterized the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church. One can only be humbled by Nostra Aetate, as well as by all the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and most importantly by all the ways in which Jesus Christ has ensured that His Church will be "guided into all Truth"[32] and that "the gates of Hell will not prevail against it."[33]
- - -
[1] Leo Knowles, Catholic Book of Quotations (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2004), 199.
[2] ibid., 202.
[3] Quotes from conciliar documents are largely taken from Norman P. Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, Vols. 1 and 2 (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1990). When this work was not at my disposal, I have linked to an identical online version.
[4] In the fourth paragraph in Article 4 of Nostra Aetate, there is a reference to Lumen Gentium, Article 16, which reads: "On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues." I linked to the translation from the Vatican website because it is more in line with the wording of Nostra Aetate than the Flannery translation.
[5] Gregory VII, "Letter to Anzir, King of Mauritania," in Jacques Dupuis, The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, 7th ed., (New York: Alba House, 2001), 418-419.
[6] Gregory VII, "Call for a Crusade," in Paul Halsall, Internet Medieval Sourcebook.
[7] First Lateran Council, Can. 10, online here.
[8] Third Lateran Council, Can. 24, in Norman P. Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, Vol 1 (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1990), p. 223.
[9] Third Lateran Council, Can. 26, in Tanner, p. 223-224.
[10] Fourth Lateran Council, Can. 71, in Tanner, p. 269.
[11] "We excommunicate and anathematize, moreover, those false and impious Christians who, in opposition to Christ and the christian people, convey arms to the Saracens and iron and timber for their galleys. We decree that those who sell them galleys or ships, and those who act as pilots in pirate Saracen ships, or give them any advice or help by way of machines or anything else, to the detriment of the holy Land, are to be punished with deprivation of their possessions and are to become the slaves of those who capture them" (Fourth Lateran Council, Can. 71, in Tanner, p. 269).
[12] See First Council of Lyons, Constitution #5 from the second set, online here.
[13] Council of Chalcedon, Can. 14, in Tanner, p. 93-94.
[14] Second Council of Nicaea, Can. 8, in Tanner, p. 145.
[15] See the Third Council of Constantinople, in Tanner, p. 124; and the Fourth Council of Constantinople, in Tanner, p. 161.
[16] Third Lateran Council, Can. 26, in Tanner, pgs. 223-224.
[17] Fourth Lateran Council, Cans. 67-70, in Tanner, pgs. 265-267.
[18] Council of Basel, Session 11, in Tanner, p. 575.
[19] Arthur Gilbert, The Vatican Council and the Jews, (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1968), p. vii.
[20] Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate, Article 2, in Austin Flannery, O.P., Vatican Council II, Volume 1: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Company, 2004), p. 739.
[21] Xavier Rynne, The Fourth Session: The Debates and Decrees of Vatican Council II (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1966), p. 160.
[22] "Appendix G: Chronology of the Council’s Jewish Statement and American Jewish Reaction," in Arthur Gilbert, The Vatican Council and the Jews, (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1968), p. 292.
[23] Appendix G, in Gilbert, pgs. 292-294.
[24] Appendix G, in Gilbert, p. 295.
[25] Xavier Rynne, The Second Session: The Debates and Decrees of Vatican Council II (New York: Farrar, Straus and Company, 1964), pgs. 218-223.
[26] Floyd Anderson, Council Daybook: Vatican II, Sessions 1 and 2 (Washington, D.C.: National Catholic Welfare Office, 1965), p. 299.
[27] Appendix G, in Gilbert, pgs. 296-297.
[28] ibid., p. 299.
[29] ibid., p. 300
[30] ibid., p. 300-301.
[31] For example, in his commentary on the Third Session, which Rynne calls "The October Crisis", he states: "Having been outmaneuvered and outvoted on collegiality, the same minority now concentrated its efforts on sidetracking or hampering the revision of the Declarations on Religious Liberty and the Jews, with a view to preventing a final vote, if possible, and eventually burying both" (Xavier Rynne, The Third Session: The Debates and Decrees of Vatican Council II [New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1965], p. 63).
[32] John 16:13 (RSV)
[33] Matthew 16:18 (DRB)

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